A bold statement, but I am going to endeavour to back it up.
For a start, I’m not putting it out there in terms of stats and figures. There have been other years where we have scored more goals, gained more points, conceded fewer and so on (actually, 2016 takes most of those plaudits).
My assertion that it is the finest year ever is based on the slightly more intangible. I’ve just been reading through people’s Albion memories of 2017, and one thing strikes a chord more than other. 20 years since resurrecting our club from the wastelands of Archer tuberculotic P&L sheets – the work we had put in, the marches we had gone on, the letters written, the political candidates, the petitions, the banner over bridges – everything we had done over the past two decades was building to this. And this was OUR MOMENT, one we as fans had collectively worked towards. We had booked it, paid for it – it was our turn.
When we fell at the final hurdle at Middlesbrough in 2016 in truth, I never really believed we were fully ready. However, for a team which finishes third (automatic promotion once upon a time), to not only repeat the feat, but to better it (we’re not going to talk about those last three matches of the season) shows class, character and desire. And no little love.
The signs were there. Tony Bloom had put an £8m chip on the table to keep Dale Stephens at the club. And no-one goes eye-to-eye with the Lizard in a game of high stakes poker for one of our players and comes out smiling. Glenn Murray came home. Shane Duffy joined and became a colossus – horizontal and vertical.* Knockaert was on fire, and it was a team (hardly ever) laid down and died.
The year started amazingly well. Hemed and Dunk scoring with 90 seconds of each other at Fulham; the Putney end threatened to collapse, and I still wince when I see Shane Duffy bundling on top of the celebratory pile. Sheffield Wednesday at home, bloody hell – That. Felt. Good. Hemed at Brentford (with a jubilant Bloom in the crowd), Pocognoli at QPR (‘scenes of utter bedlam’), AK on fire at Wolves and on and on.
And how good was 17th April 2017…? A run-of-the-mill (eventually) victory over a mediocre Wigan Athletic side secured the near-as-dammit nailed-on probability that we had been promoted. Cue enormous pitch invasion, great scenes and a bawdy, NSFW karaoke singalong from a dozen half-naked players in the Press Area. Fast forward two hours, promotion is secured and we do it all over again. This time, however, the players had got some clothes on. Two more hours and some half-cut Albion players are passed down the train like a torpedo on the way into town.
When Paul Hodson, Steve North and I put on ‘Build A Bonfire’ back in April, we knew we were in the middle of the zeitgeist. We had been promoted 11 days before – ‘We’re On Our Way’ was a constant earworm, and the city was dressed in blue and white. More so than the Cup Final, and (from memory) more so than promotion in 1979, we were the footballing story. People wanted to know about us; about our story. And ours is a story which does need telling. So we told it.
We were ridiculed by other fans for having an open top bus parade for finishing second. Twaddle. We were having a parade for the 20-year journey we had made together from Gillingham to Withdean – via John Prescott, NIMBYism, letter-writing, local authorities, planning consultants, planning lawyers and a whole host of other bodies that have no business involving themselves in the history of our old and cherished club – to Falmer to get where we are. And to go into the final game of 2017 in 12th place in the Premier League? You’d have bitten your arm off for it in September, let alone this time last year.
We made a slow, nervous, rabbit-in-the-headlights start to our second spell in the top flight, but I believe we have already better equipped ourselves in this division this time around than in 1979. A great win at home to West Brom, and and even better one away at West Ham have already made people sit up and notice. Chances of PL survival are reasonable; more optimistic than the outlook back in August. The second half of the year hasn’t been the total crash-and-burn some may have feared.
But, for me, if 2017 has to be about one person – it’s about Chris Hughton. Again. The man is a hero. Never mind the wonderful in-jokes about his behaviour on the touchline – this man has got us to where we are today. He kept his head while all those around him were screaming theirs off. He doesn’t always get it right, but he does so far more often than he gets it wrong. He has by no means taken the club as far as he can; I believe he has plenty more gears to go through, and if Plan A (not getting relegated) for 2018 can be achieved, he will have there wherewithal to take us much further. And if we do go down, I can think of no better person to take us straight back up.
We’ve done as well as we have in 2016 and 2017 because we’ve done it the right way… #Together.
So – as an Albion fan, was there a better, more memorable year? Does 1979 (as a whole) compare? Was another year better – given the context? If so, when? Over to you…
* His leaping and his diving headers. What did you think I meant?